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August 10, 2008

ACC has no shortage of storylines to watch

MORE: 2008 ACC Unit Rankings

If the Atlantic Coast Conference produced as many BCS victories as plotlines, nobody would be questioning the strength of the conference.

An ACC team hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship, but the league heads into the 2008 season with plenty of intriguing stories waiting to be told.

How long will it take for Florida State and Miami to regain their status as national powers? Will Virginia Tech return to a two-quarterback system? How effectively can Boston College quarterback Chris Crane replace Matt Ryan? Who will emerge as Virginia Tech's main challenger in the Coastal Division? Is this the season Clemson finally wins its first conference title since 1991?

Half of the ACC teams have changed coaches in the past two years, and the league enters the 2008 season in a state of transition. This rundown of the conference gives an indication of who's moving up and who's headed downhill.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper. All he did in his first season as a starter was throw for a school-record 27 touchdowns while being intercepted just six times. Harper might not have such an impressive touchdown-interception ratio this season while throwing behind an inexperienced line, but he still should be the deciding factor in the ACC race. Of course, it always helps when you're throwing the ball to the conference's top receiver (Aaron Kelly) or handing it off to the league's two best running backs (James Davis and C.J. Spiller).

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith. This 5-foot-9 dynamo has demonstrated his nose for the ball by intercepting 14 passes, forcing five fumbles and blocking four kicks in his career. He tied for the NCAA lead last season with eight interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns. Don't throw in his direction early: Smith recorded interceptions on the first play from scrimmage against Boston College and Vanderbilt last year.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Boston College quarterback Chris Crane. The wait is over for Crane, a fifth-year senior who takes over the starting job with Matt Ryan having moved on to the Atlanta Falcons. Now comes the hard part. The Eagles don't have any experienced running backs, so they can't ease Crane into the job by focusing on their rushing attack.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Virginia Tech linebacker Brett Warren. Warren, the son of former Washington Redskins tight end Don Warren, filled in admirably for an injured Vince Hall last season. Now he must prove he can do it for a full season. The departures of Hall and Xavier Adibi leave Virginia Tech with a depleted linebacking corps. The Hokies are counting on Warren to provide leadership as a fifth-year senior, even though this will mark his first season as a full-time starter.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Virginia defensive ends Alex Field and Sean Gottschalk. The Cavaliers were going to have a tough enough time replacing All-America end Chris Long, who was selected by the St. Louis Rams with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. The hole at end grew even larger when Jeffrey Fitzgerald left school. Field and Gottschalk are the favorites to replace Long and Fitzgerald, who combined for 21 sacks and 34 tackles for loss last season.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer. After averaging 5.3 yards per carry and rushing for nine touchdowns as a backup to Tashard Choice last season, Dwyer should flourish in new coach Paul Johnson's option attack.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Georgia Tech end Michael Johnson. Even as a situational pass rusher the past two seasons, Johnson showed a flair for the dramatic. He delivered back-to-back sacks in the final minute to clinch a victory over Maryland two years ago and blocked a potential game-winning field goal as time expired against North Carolina last season. Now that Johnson is a full-time player, he should rank among the conference leaders in sacks.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Boston College tailback Josh Haden. Haden, a true freshman, enrolled early and exited spring practice as the Eagles' likely No. 1 tailback. The Eagles have such a lack of depth at running back that Haden will get every chance to show he's up for the job.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Clemson end DaQuan Bowers. The No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, Bowers enrolled in time for spring practice. Don't be surprised if Bowers works his way into the starting lineup in a hurry and teams with Ricky Sapp to give Clemson the ACC's top pass-rushing tandem.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Clemson's Tommy Bowden. Sure, he signed a four-year extension in December after Arkansas contacted him about its coaching vacancy. The heat may be off Bowden now, but let's see how much pressure he feels if Clemson fails to win the Atlantic Division as a prohibitive favorite.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Virginia Tech. Hokies coach Frank Beamer benefits from the kind of stability that helped make Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's staff so effective in the 1990s. Running backs coach Billy Hite started his Virginia Tech tenure in 1978, nine years before Beamer's arrival. Bud Foster, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the nation, has been working alongside Beamer since the pair was at Murray State in 1981. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles has been at Virginia Tech since 1996, while recruiting coordinator Jim Cavanaugh is entering his seventh season on the Hokies' staff.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Clemson's Rob Spence. He benefits from having the most firepower in the league, but Spence also has found creative ways to get the ball in the hands of his most explosive players. Spence has helped Clemson lead the league in scoring each of the past two seasons, which gives him the slight edge over Boston College's Steve Logan.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Virginia Tech's Bud Foster. In a league with plenty of talented coordinators, Foster stands head and shoulders above the rest. Tech ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and fourth in total defense last season after leading all schools in both categories in 2005 and 2006. No wonder Foster won the 2006 Frank Broyles Award that goes to the nation's top assistant.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Florida State offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. This category is a bit unfair since Fisher already has been announced as Bowden's eventual successor. Although we're guessing Bowden continues coaching at least through the 2009 season, it wouldn't be a major surprise if he hands the reins to Fisher next season.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Clemson at Wake Forest, Oct. 9. Perhaps the biggest thing standing in Clemson's way is a schedule that forces the Tigers to face arguably their two toughest Atlantic Division rivals Wake Forest and Florida State on the road. There's a good chance Clemson will carry a perfect record into this Thursday night showdown, but a loss here could trigger a second-half tailspin.

Alabama vs. Clemson in Atlanta, Aug. 30
Wake Forest at Florida State, Sept. 20
Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Sept. 20
Virginia Tech at Nebraska, Sept. 27
Clemson at Wake Forest, Oct. 9
Virginia Tech at Boston College, Oct. 18
Virginia Tech at Florida State, Oct. 25
Clemson at Florida State, Nov. 8
Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 13
Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Virginia. The season starts with a visit from USC. It ends with a tough three-game stretch at Wake Forest, at home against Clemson and at Virginia Tech. Virginia does get to feast on one Division I-AA opponent (Richmond), but non-conference games at Connecticut and against East Carolina could prove dangerous.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Clemson. Although those road trips to Wake Forest and Florida State are worrisome, Clemson otherwise has a relatively easy schedule - particularly for a preseason conference favorite. Clemson doesn't have to face defending conference champion Virginia Tech, and the non-conference schedule includes two Division I-AA programs: The Citadel and South Carolina State.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Duke. Give credit to the Blue Devils for scheduling only one Division I-AA team (James Madison) in a season when Florida State and Clemson put two I-AA foes on their schedules. Then again, Clemson also has to face Alabama and South Carolina, and Florida State must battle Colorado and Florida. Duke doesn't face anyone of that caliber outside the ACC. Duke's non-conference slate of James Madison, Northwestern, Navy and Vanderbilt gives the Blue Devils four beatable opponents, though it would be a surprise if the Blue Devils actually win more than one of those games.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: The Citadel at Clemson, Sept. 6. The Citadel was picked to finish sixth in the Southern Conference. Clemson was picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. That should add up to a runaway.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE: North Carolina. The Tar Heels went 4-8 in Butch Davis' first season, but the freshman-laden team went 1-4 in games decided by four or fewer points. Now that their underclassmen are a little bit older, expect the Heels to earn a bowl bid this year. And they should make a legitimate ACC title run in 2009.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Virginia. The Cavaliers were the biggest surprise in the conference while going 9-4 last season, but not much has gone right for Virginia since. The graduation of All-America defensive end Chris Long and the unexpected losses of quarterback Jameel Sewell and defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald could keep the Cavaliers home for the holidays this season.

IN THREE YEARS, CLEMSON WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: Perhaps Florida State and Miami will have regained their status as national powers by this point, but neither Jimbo Fisher nor Randy Shannon is proven as a head coach. Virginia Tech is another strong possibility, but we're not sure how much longer the Hokies' veteran staff will stay together. That's why we'll go with Clemson, which already is the most talented team in the league and continues to recruit well. The only question is whether Clemson will have learned how to win the big game by then.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Cullen Harper, Clemson, Sr.
RB James Davis, Clemson, Sr.
RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson, Jr.
WR Aaron Kelly, Clemson, Sr.
WR Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina, Jr.
TE Ryan Purvis, Boston College, Sr.
T Andrew Gardner, Georgia Tech, Sr.
G Rodney Hudson, Florida State, Soph.
C Edwin Williams, Maryland, Sr.
G Sergio Render, Virginia Tech, Jr.
T Eugene Monroe, Virginia, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Everette Brown, Florida State, Jr.
T Ron Brace, Boston College, Sr.
T Vance Walker, Georgia Tech, Sr.
E Willie Young, North Carolina State, Jr.
LB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest, Jr.
LB Dave Philistin, Maryland, Sr.
LB Clint Sintim, Virginia, Sr.
CB Victor Harris, Virginia Tech, Sr.
CB Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest, Sr.
FS Kam Chancellor, Virginia Tech, Jr.
SS Michael Hamlin, Clemson, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Sam Swank, Wake Forest, Sr.
P Graham Gano, Florida State, Sr.
KR C.J. Spiller, Clemson, Jr.

MORE: 2008 ACC Unit Rankings

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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